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Battery safety of vaping devices. What is the real risk?

Posted on May 7, 2018

The media has reported the tragic story of a 38-year old man who died in Florida after an apparent explosion of a vaping device. Information is sketchy as the man was alone at the time and we do not know what type of device he was using.

However, it raises concerns about the safety of vaping and what vapers can do to reduce the risk of a similar event.

These episodes are generally due to lithium batteries which are known to occasionally malfunction, leading to overheating, fires and even rarely explosions. Similar malfunctions have been reported from lithium batteries in mobile phones and laptop computers. Over 2 million Galaxy Note mobile phones were recently recalled due to a similar issue.

Why do lithium batteries malfunction?

Lithium batteries can malfunction if a small fault or damage allows the the positive and negative electrodes of the battery to connect. Lithium is highly reactive and this can lead to an internal short-circuit and a subsequent build-up of heat. This can trigger what is known as a “thermal runaway” in which the battery overheats and can burst into flames.

How common are lithium battery malfunctions?

Episodes like this case are dramatic and are widely reported by the media. However, they are very rare. A report by Public Health England concluded that the risk of fire from the electrical elements of e-cigarettes appears to be comparable to similar electrical goods.(p83)

According to the US Fire Administration, there were about 30 fires or explosions per year reported in the media between 2009-2016 in a population of over 8 million vapers. These are indeed very rare events and until now there have been no deaths reported.

The risk of fire is dramatically less than that due to smoking. The London Fire Brigade estimated in 2017 that the risk of a house fire from smoking was 255 times more likely than from vaping, noting that four times as many people smoke as they do vape. They report that 'In the last three years there has been 66 fire deaths caused by smoking and none relating to e-cigarettes'.

How to reduce your risk

Battery safety is being continually improved. Electrical protection can be built into the battery, into the charging appliance, or into the electronics to reduce the risk.

It is recommended that new users choose a model with an in-built battery made by a reputable manufacturer which have a low risk of malfunction. Batteries in these devices are enclosed in a protective case and are not removed. They generally have protective circuitry built in to protect from overcharging or overheating and have an extremely low risk of malfunction.

There is a greater risk when using advanced models with low quality replaceable batteries. Loose replaceable batteries can be damaged and malfunction when used. Special care should be taken to protect them when carrying spares.

Users of 'mechanical mods'  and those who construct and modify their own devices are at special risk and need to be well trained in the engineering and electrical issues involved.

ATHRA recommends the following guidelines to reduce the risk of battery failure

  • Only use the cable supplied with your vaping device to charge it and the charger if one is provided.
  • Don’t charge your device overnight or leave it charging unattended
  • Overcharging can damage your battery, so unplug it when fully charged
  • If you are using a model with replaceable batteries
    • Don’t put loose batteries in your pocket with coins, keys, or other metals. Store batteries in a specially designed battery case or sleeve to prevent shorting
    • Replace the battery (if removable) if the battery is damaged or gets wet
    • Do not use a replaceable battery if the coloured plastic wrapper is torn or damaged in any way (replaceable batteries only)
    • Buy good quality, genuine batteries from reputable suppliers that are designed for your device

TV story on SBS with comments from Colin

Further advice on battery safety is available from:

The UK Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association

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